Three on a Match

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Three on a Match (1932)
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay by Lucien Hubbard
Story by
Produced by
Cinematography Sol Polito
Edited byRay Curtiss
Music by Leo F. Forbstein
Ray Heindorf
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date
  • October 29, 1932 (1932-10-29)(US)
Running time
63 mins.
CountryUnited States

Three on a Match is a 1932 American pre-Code crime drama released by Warner Bros. The film was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and stars Joan Blondell, Warren William, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis. The film also features Lyle Talbot, Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins and Edward Arnold. [1]



Three women who went to the same New York City elementary school, Mary, Ruth, and Vivian, meet again as young adults after some time apart. They each light a cigarette from the same match and discuss the superstition that such an act is unlucky and that Vivian, the last to light her cigarette, will be the first to die.

Mary is a show girl who has established stability in her life after spending some time in a reform school, while Ruth works as a stenographer. Vivian is the best off of the three, married to successful lawyer, Robert Kirkwood, with a young son, Robert Jr., but she has grown dissatisfied with her life and so decides to take a trip to Europe with her little boy.

Just before Vivian and Junior's ship is about to set sail, Mary boards the ocean liner with two men to attend a bon voyage party for some friends. Gambler Michael Loftus, one of the two men, flirts with Vivian. She's smitten with him and he persuades her to run away with him. Minutes before the ship leaves port, Vivian gathers up her son and the three disembark from the boat.

Vivian and Michael Loftus live a very shabby and rather dissolute life, so that Mary, concerned about Vivian's neglect of her son, tells Robert (nearly mad about the disappearance of the boy) where to find him. Both Mary and Ruth are very fond of Junior and Robert has fallen in love with Mary. He proposes to her and hires Ruth to look after the child. Mary and Robert marry the same day his divorce from Vivian becomes final.

Meanwhile, Vivian has become a hopeless drug addict and has spent all of her money. Additionally, Michael owes $2,000 to gangster Ace, who tells him to pay up or else. Desperate, Michael tries to blackmail Robert by threatening to inform the press about Mary's criminal background. Robert refuses to pay because he is already aware of Mary's checkered past; so instead, Michael kidnaps Junior to demand a ransom to pay his debt. Ace's thugs find the child with Michael and Vivian in their apartment where Junior joins his mother in her bedroom. The thugs are delighted and send a demand for a much larger ransom of $25,000.

Vivian begins having withdrawals. One of the gangsters, while out trying to score a fix for her, sees policemen in the neighborhood going door to door searching for the kidnapped boy. The gangsters decide to kill the child before the police arrive, but Michael balks at the plan, especially since he's the one who's been ordered to do the dirty deed. Enraged, the gangsters kill Michael.

In the meantime, Vivian has overheard the plot to kill Junior and is determined to save her son's life at all costs. She tells Junior to hide under the bed, then scrawls a message in lipstick on the front of her nightgown that relays the boy's whereabouts. Just as the gangsters are coming through her bedroom door, she jumps out of the fourth-floor window, killing herself but resulting in the boy's rescue. Mary and Ruth, at home after all is resolved, symbolically light their cigarettes from the same match and then throw it down onto the hearthstone, where the flame goes out.



Dvorak was the last of the four principal actors to be cast. [2] This was Bogart's first appearance as a hoodlum type, although his work in Midnight (released 1934) preceded this role and led to his being cast by LeRoy. [3]

Filming took place in June 1932. [4]

When this film was released in October 1932, the Lindbergh kidnapping was very much in the news and the kidnappers had not yet been caught. The kidnapping of a child in the story raised concerns with censors, but Jason Joy of the Studio Relations Committee [lower-alpha 1] successfully made a case for the film to the censors in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland. [5]

Joan Blondell in a banned 1932 promotional publicity photo for the film Three on a Match Joan Blondell banned 1932 publicity photo.jpg
Joan Blondell in a banned 1932 promotional publicity photo for the film Three on a Match


Joan Blondell posed for a risqué 1932 promotional publicity photo for the film which was later banned under the Motion Picture Production Code.


Three on a Match received tepid to poor notices overall. [4] [6] Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times called Three on a Match "tedious and distasteful" as well as "unintelligent". [7] The Time reviewer felt the film did not carry much weight, unlike previous Glasmon–Bright productions, [lower-alpha 2] and that the suicide at the end was more implausible than tragic. [8] Kaspar Monahan of the Pittsburgh Press thought that it began with the hope of being "different" but ultimately devolved into a "gangster yarn" and summarized: "Direction good for the most part; acting as good as can be expected under the circumstances; story erratic." [9]

The Spokane Spokesman-Review expressed admiration for the way the passage of time is shown through several montage sequences, calling it "a brand new approach and treatment ..." and commented that the film "rang true". [10]

Trade paper reviews advised exhibitors to focus on the cast: "An attractive cast array is the attendance motive for this picture which is surprising in its meager demands upon its quartet of featured people" was the opening comment of Variety 's Sid Silverman. [11] The Film Daily review, too, said the "cast helps" with a plot that has "too many turns". [12] The Motion Picture Herald also advised exhibitors to focus on the "strength of the cast names" and not to even use the word "kidnaping" or allude to it in promotions. [13]

Decades after its release, the film found more favor with critics and film historians. In 1969, William K. Everson called it "unusually carefully-made" and wrote, "Splendidly cut and paced ... and climaxed by a real shocker, Three on a Match is still a vivid little picture". [14] Wheeler Winston Dixon observed, "the film is astonishing for the amount of information that LeRoy manages to compress into this lightning fast tale". [15] It has been pointed to as Dvorak's best performance for Warners. [16]

Leonard Maltin gives the film three out of four stars, describing it as a “Fine, fast-moving (and surprisingly potent) pre-Code melodrama of three girls who renew childhood friendship, only to find suspense and tragedy. Dvorak is simply marvelous.” [17]

Three on a Match holds an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on five reviews. [18]

In 1938 Warner Bros. released Broadway Musketeers , a remake of Three on a Match. [19]

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Informational notes

  1. The arm of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America tasked with implementing the Hays Code
  2. e.g., The Public Enemy (1931)


  1. "Three on a Match]". Turner Classic Movies . Atlanta: Turner Broadcasting System (Time Warner). Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  2. Ralph Wilk (May 27, 1932). "A Little from the 'Lots'". The Film Daily . LIX (49): 7. Retrieved October 15, 2015 via Internet Archive.
  3. Richard Schickel (2006). Bogie: A Celebration of the Life and Films of Humphrey Bogart. St. Martin's Press. p. 99. ISBN   978-0-312-36629-2.
  4. 1 2 Christina Rice (2013). Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 83–84, 88. ISBN   978-0-8131-4440-5.
  5. Ruth Vasey (1997). The World According to Hollywood, 1918–1939. Univ of Wisconsin Press. p. 110. ISBN   978-0-299-15194-2.
  6. Jeff Stafford. "Three on a Match (1932)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved October 15, 2015.
  7. Mordaunt Hall (October 29, 1932). "Blackmail and Kidnapping". New York Times . Retrieved October 15, 2015.
  8. "Cinema: The New Pictures: Nov. 7, 1932", Time . (subscription required)
  9. Kaspar Monahan (November 4, 1932). "The Show Stops". The Pittsburgh Press . p. 48. Retrieved October 15, 2015.
  10. "Ann Dvorak Star in Film at Fox". The Spokesman-Review . November 17, 1932. p. 5. Retrieved October 15, 2015.
  11. Sid Silverman (November 1, 1932). "Three on a Match". Film Reviews. Variety . 108 (8): 12. Retrieved October 17, 2015 via Internet Archive.
  12. "Three on a Match". The Film Daily. LX (102): 6. October 29, 1932. Retrieved October 17, 2015 via Internet Archive.
  13. "Three on a Match". Showmen's Reviews. Motion Picture Herald . 109 (1): 52–53. October 1, 1932. Retrieved October 17, 2015 via Internet Archive.
  14. William K. Everson (February 21, 1969). "Program Notes: 'Three on a Match'" (PDF). William K. Everson Archive. New York University. Retrieved October 18, 2015.
  15. Wheeler Winston Dixon (2013). "Precursors to Film Noir". In Andre Spicer; Helen Hanson (eds.). A Companion to Film Noir. John Wiley & Sons. p. 100. ISBN   978-1-118-52371-1.
  16. Ray Hagen; Laura Wagner (2004). Killer Tomatoes: Fifteen Tough Film Dames. McFarland. p. 54. ISBN   978-0-7864-8073-9.
  17. "Three on a Match (1932) - Overview -". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved June 13, 2020.
  18. "Three on a Match". Rotten Tomatoes .
  19. "Broadway Musketeers". Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute . Retrieved October 17, 2015.